To subscribe to my current newsletter, go to The Collected Foremania, hosted on Substack. Below is a recreation of my favorite newsletter (I referred to them as Pamphlets then). I have put it here because my newsletter is now hosted at Substack.

Pamphlet 8: “Brain”

⚡️Mr. Foreman’s Amazing Electric Ephemera⚡️

“Guaranteed to take no longer to be read than takes a single cup of coffee to be drunk.”


If you know me, you know why I picked this noun to begin my first pamphlet in almost exactly a year (the last pamphlet was distributed on July 30th, 2017). On the week of Thanksgiving in 2017, I had surgery to remove an ependymoma from my brain stem. Ependymomas are considered cancerous because they can metastasize into other areas of the brain and spinal column, though they are not usually deadly. They are extraordinarily rare in people my age. Lucky me.


a thoughtful exploration of interesting topics enhanced by personal experience and opinion; topics begin at the Theme and, like growing trees, sprout branches into unpredictable areas


I had two brain surgeries (fun fact — I keep misspelling “surgeries” as “sugaries”). Tumor surgeries are not typically emergencies, but mine was. I spent four days in the hospital leading up to my operation because the neurosurgeon only does operations on Mondays and I went to the emergency room on a day that was not a Monday. This lag time also allowed my body to absorb roughly a billion gallons of strong steroids that shrank various structures in my brain to reduce the swelling from the backed-up cerebrospinal fluid. This kind of swelling often kills people when it comes on too quickly.

This might be one of the reasons why we occasionally find skulls up to 7,000 years old with big holes in them. The tumor on my brain stem caused a backup in the flow of fluid in my ventricles, which swelled up and got bigger, causing a condition called hydrocephaly. The pressure caused “intractable” headaches (the hospital’s word, not mine), which had become so debilitating that I nearly fell unconscious from the blinding pain. It was that incident that made me go to the emergency room the final time.

Had I been alive in 6000 BCE instead of our current age of miracles, I would have happily submitted myself to the intrepid protodoctor who thought, correctly, that a feeling of pressure in my head would be relieved by releasing some of that pressure.

The origin of the word “trepanning” is not, as I thought, from “tree panning,” or the practice of hacking open a hole in a tree and letting the sap run out, which is not even called that. I don’t know where that connection in my head came from, but there is a word for using words wrong.


I just made that word up. “Malaportmanteau” is itself portmanteau that combines “malapropism” and “portmanteau.” A portmanteau is a word that combines two things to make up a new word (“cheeseburger,” for instance) while a malapropism is a word that is and sounds like another word, except used incorrectly and usually used humorously. Malapropisms are fertile ground for puns, so I love them and hate them.

Trepanning is not even a portmanteau, as I thought, thus my new portmanteau, which means “a word confidently mistaken for a portmanteau.” The word “trepan,” the root of “trepanation,” is apparently derived from the greek word for boring, like this newsletter.

That was a pun based on a homonym, which is not a malapropism. Homonyms are a variety of homophone — two words that are spelled and pronounced the same but mean two different things. Another kind of homophone is a heterograph like “to, too, and two,” or words that are spelled differently, and mean different things but sound the same. English can be confusing.

The Most Difficult Language To Learn 

Don’t get too excited, it’s not english, which isn’t that difficult. This, according to linguists and other professionals who know such things. I’ve only learned one language, though I took three semesters of Russian in college, in a powerful case of Past Jim overestimating how much schooling depressed and anxious Future Jim would be willing to tolerate (thank you, Lena, for passing me when I most definitely didn’t deserve it). Thus, you could say that the most difficult language for ME to learn was Russian.

But the answer to the question is: it depends. For people who speak Standard Average English (or “unaccented” American english), the answer would be different from someone who grew up speaking Estonian, which has 14 verb cases. Bora, a language from Peru, has 350 noun genders.

The concept of gender in languages is confusing, as noted most famously by Mark Twain, who wrote this about German, which only has three:

Every noun has a gender, and there is no sense or system in the distribution; so the gender of each must be learned separately and by heart. There is no other way. To do this one has to have a memory like a memorandum-book. In German, a young lady has no sex, while a turnip has. Think what overwrought reverence that shows for the turnip, and what callous disrespect for the girl.

This is true, if one thinks of gender in language as a biological sex thing, when it’s not that at all — it’s closer to the concept of genre, with nouns of similar shape or size or whatever occupying the same linguistic noun classification. Language is a living and moving thing so some languages have different classifications. My favorite is Dyirbal, which is spoken in Australia, and has a genre of nouns that includes “women, fire and dangerous things.” Brother, tell me about it.

The answer to the question was answered by The Economist, in an article from which much of the above was derived (you didn’t think I actually knew all this, did you?), is a language used by a dwindling number of people (it was about 1000 people in 2008): Tuyuca, spoken in the Amazon. I’ll let them explain why we would have so much trouble with it:

Tuyuca requires verb-endings on statements to show how the speaker knows something. Diga ape-wi means that “the boy played soccer (I know because I saw him)”, while diga ape-hiyi means “the boy played soccer (I assume)”. English can provide such information, but for Tuyuca that is an obligatory ending on the verb.

The Economist article ends with a sobering reminder that one consequence of our age of technological miracles and globalization is the gradual disappearance of languages as people drift toward a common tongue. Different languages make one think in different ways, and that kind of diversity of thought is something worth saving. Language is culture, too — if we lose one, we lose the other.

Hot Snakes

It’s one thing to learn a language, it’s another thing to speak it. Metaphors are fraught and all too common. If I were to tell a person who’s just learning english that I wasn’t feeling well and I had “the hot snakes,” they would probably be extremely confused. That’s a bad example, because it confuses lifelong english speakers, too, as in this memorable outtakefrom Parks & Recreation, which you’ll have to watch if you want to know what hot snakes mean (if you haven’t figured it out on your own already).


Speaking of hot snakes, I was born in the year of the snake, according to the Chinese zodiac. Specifically, the year of the fire snake. According to one website, this is what being a snake-person means:

In Chinese culture, the Snake is the most enigmatic animal among the twelve zodiac animals. People born in a year of the Snake are supposed to be the most intuitive.

Snakes tend to act according to their own judgments, even while remaining the most private and reticent. They are determined to accomplish their goals and hate to fail.

Snakes represent the symbol of wisdom. They are intelligent and wise. They are good at communication but say little. Snakes are usually regarded as great thinkers.

Snakes are materialistic and love keeping up with the Joneses. They love to posses the best of everything, but they have no patience for shopping.

Snake people prefer to work alone, therefore they are easily stressed. If they seem unusually stressed, it is best to allow them their own space and time to return to normal.

In other words, it’s nonsense. The above could describe anybody. Having spent many years in school with people who were born in the same year as me, which is how the Chinese zodiac is determined, I can confidently say that lots of people don’t have all of those characteristics.

As somebody who knows about these things will surely want me to know, the Chinese restaurant menu version of the Chinese zodiac that I’ve cited is merely scratching the surface. The true Chinese zodiac goes much deeper, going from months, to days, to hours (which are called your “secret animals,” which is awesome). It’s still meaningless.


A selection of delights both digital and physical, curated for your enjoyment.

James Randi on Nova

Early Jim lived in the dark ages before the internet (people often forget that on-demand video is an extremely new phenomenon), so he derived entertainment from shows like Nova. The best episode of that show probably ever concerned The Amazing Randi, a magician turned professional skeptic. It was because of that, and Carl Sagan’s books, that I am so annoyingly skeptical. This segment, specifically, inspired the person who wrote that stuff about the Chinese zodiac you just read.

Snowmelt by Zoë Keating

I wrote this on Facebook so I’m just going to repost it here: Zoë Keating, whose husband died of cancer that began in his brain, released this EP recently. They were together for 16 years. She calls it “four songs from the end of a long winter.” It’s such a gift to be able to follow an artist through these emotional tribulations. The song Possible, for example, has a note of hopefulness enveloped in melancholy and I can’t stop listening to it.


Composed on a computer, distributed to the internet via wifi at a coffee shop. The typesetting always gets extremely wonky with TinyLetter, so if parts of it look weird, it’s the platform’s fault.

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